College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences

Orchards of the Future — Think Automation

In orchards and vineyards of the future, one sensor will measure the amount of photosynthetic energy being absorbed by tree and vine canopies at any time of day. Still others will sense moisture levels from leaves and soil. A variable-rate irrigation system can then supply just the right amount of water and fertilizer, depending on what a particular plant needs. And all the information can be collected, processed and seen by growers in real time through their mobile devices so they can make informed decisions quickly.

Washington State University’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems is working with University of California at Davis and others on a three-year, $2.6 million U.S. Department of Agriculture project to bring this future to the present.

WSU doctoral student Jingjin Zhang (left) and engineering technician Patrick Scharf measure photosynthetic energy absorption in sweet cherry trees at the WSU Roza Research Orchard near Prosser. The measurements are taken on a mobile platform that is part of a three-year project to develop a precision agriculture system for specialty crop growers. Photo by Qin Zhang/WSU.
WSU doctoral student Jingjin Zhang (left) and engineering technician Patrick Scharf measure photosynthetic energy absorption in sweet cherry trees at the WSU Roza Research Orchard near Prosser. The measurements are taken on a mobile platform that is part of a three-year project to develop a precision agriculture system for specialty crop growers. Photo by Qin Zhang/WSU.

“This research is aimed at developing and integrating soil- and plant-based sensors to monitor the state and condition of plant canopies for optimizing management within orchards and vineyards,” said Qin Zhang, WSU CPAAS director. “The importance of this research to Washington’s wine grape and tree fruit industries is that the profitability of the industry is strongly dependent on the production of high-quality fruit, which is associated with a proper balance of canopy and crop load.”

Project researchers are developing a farm-based, precision management system to help specialty crop growers improve quality and increase production efficiency while reducing their environmental footprint. The project has seven objectives, of which WSU is participating in five:

  • Mobile platform for measuring canopy architecture and photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) absorption. PAR is necessary for photosynthesis and plant growth. In orchards, researchers have studied the relationship between the amount of this energy canopies absorb and increasing productivity. The information gathered from the platform—equipped with a GPS receiver, radar and infrared thermometers—can be used to determine the effect of canopy management on yield, quality and more.

WSU researchers took the PAR absorption study a step further when they evaluated sweet cherry trees trained to new, two-dimensional fruiting wall architectures at the WSU Roza Research Orchard near Prosser. They found that trees trained to a Y trellis absorbed more light over the course of a day than trees trained to an upright fruiting offshoot (UFO) system.

“It could provide the fundamental information needed to improve both fruit yield and quality in a UFO system by carefully planning the pruning of trees,” Zhang said.

  • Sensor suite for detecting plant and soil water status. Sensors for infrared temperature, PAR, wind speed, relative humidity and ambient air temperature make up the suite. An in-ground probe measures soil moisture, electrical conductivity, organic matter and compaction.

WSU is also investigating modifications to the suite to monitor water stress of grapevines. Additions include infrared thermography to detect temperature distribution patterns of sunlit and shaded canopies, as well as a handheld light bar and multispectral camera to measure PAR absorption under different water stress levels.

  • Decision support system. WSU has created a prototype software analysis tool so participating growers and university researchers can assimilate and rapidly act on the information they receive from sensing devices in the field. The tool can import and integrate a wide variety of data in different formats, including time, location, temperatures and other readings; process the information and show results specific to a grower’s farming operation; and support a range of Internet-connected mobile devices, such as a smart phone or tablet.

“This is a very challenging task,” Zhang said. “We’re giving growers the basic algorithm, and they can choose the interface. Some want a paper copy of the data analysis; others want it on their iPhone. Some want results in color; others in black and white. Some want to see something in 3-D; others in 2-D. It’s difficult to please everybody. The important thing is to make the information available visually in real time.”

  • Variable-rate irrigation system. A network of wireless sensors and controllers manages irrigation so a tree or group of trees receives only the amount of water and fertilizer needed. WSU is evaluating the system on grapes in a test plot at the WSU Roza Research Orchard. Part of the evaluation will include studying the effects on berry size and phenolic content when grapes are not irrigated early in the growing season.
  • Social impact study. WSU has developed a 22-question survey to assess what growers think of the sensors and technologies that are part of the project. Questions address canopy and irrigation management in orchards and vineyards, the two major needs stakeholders have identified.

According to UC Davis, the long-term goal of the project is to establish the foundation for precise management of specialty crops at levels unattainable with satellite-based and aerial sensing. For details about its full scope, visit the project website.

“We envision the creation of an information-based, decision-making infrastructure that will drive Washington’s tree fruit and wine grape industries into this new precision agriculture revolution, an era of precision crop management,” Zhang said.

University of Arizona, New Mexico State University, Veris Technologies Inc., Oregon State University, AgInformatics LLC and Trimble Navigation Ltd. are also project investigators. Other participating agencies and producers include the Almond Board of California, California Walnut Board, Christensen Farms LLC, Constellation Wines, Olsen Brothers Ranches Inc., USDA and the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.

WSU CPAAS, established in 1999 as the WSU Center for Precision Agricultural Systems, promotes creative research and extension activities for more effective growing, harvesting and processing of specialty crops through mechanization and automation. For more information, visit the WSU CPAAS website.

–Nella Letizia

Leave a Reply

Neither your email address nor comment will be published. Required fields are marked *

CAHNRS is more than agriculture. With 24 majors, 19 minors, and 27 graduate level programs, we are one of the largest, most diverse colleges at WSU. CAHNRS Cougs are making a difference in the wellbeing of individuals, families, and communities, improving ecological and economic systems, and advancing agricultural sciences.



CAHNRS students are awarded more than $600,000 in scholarships annually.


CAHNRS leads in discovery through its high-quality research programs. In 2014, CAHNRS received research funding exceeding $81.5M. This accounts for nearly 40% of all research funding received by WSU.  


CAHNRS has 39 student clubs and organizations to enhance student experiences and opportunities.


With 24 majors, 19 minors, and 27 graduate level programs, CAHNRS is one of the largest, most diverse colleges at WSU.


Fall undergradsUndergraduate Studies

Check out every department and program CAHNRS has to offer, from Interior Design to Agriculture to Wildlife Ecology. We have 13 departments and schools to prepare you for your chosen career.

Grad student dogGraduate Studies

Students have a variety of options to pursue masters and doctoral degrees. Many of these have very specific background requirements, so we suggest exploring the individual programs for academic guidelines.

CTLLCenter for
Learning & Leadership

The CTLL is a student, faculty, alumni and industry partner collaboration for high quality learning and leadership beyond the classroom.


Inspiring Teamwork - Arron Carter pic

Inspiring Teamwork – Arron Carter

It started with a car, a ’69 Corvette Stingray to be exact.

When Arron Carter, the director of the Washington State University Winter Wheat Breeding Program, was in high school his agricultural teacher had a ’69 Corvette Stingray. Every year this teacher would let his favorite senior take the car to senior prom. Carter had never taken an agriculture class before, but he knew he wanted to drive that car.

“Well, if I’m going to be the favorite senior,” Carter said to himself, “I’d better start taking some ag classes.”…

Read More: Inspiring Teamwork – Arron Carter


CAHNRS Office of Research

Agricultural Research Center

Mission Statement

The goal of the Washington State University CAHNRS Office of Research is to promote research beneficial to the citizens of Washington. The Office of Research recognizes its unique land-grant research mission to the people of Washington and their increasing global connections. The CAHNRS Office of Research provides leadership in discovering and applying knowledge through high-quality research that contributes to a safe and abundant food, fiber, and energy supply while enhancing the sustainability of agricultural and natural resource systems.

Featured Research

sliced pear

Research for specialty crops boosted by $1.7 million

More than $1.7 million was awarded to Washington State University for specialty crop research including berries, potatoes, grapes, tree fruit, onions, carrots and Christmas trees.
Western bluebird with cricket. Photo by flickr user Kevin Cole.

Weighing the benefits, risks of wild birds on organic farms

Washington State University researchers will help organic growers protect human health by assessing the risks and benefits of wild birds on organic farms. Researchers received nearly $2 million from the USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative to conduct the study.
Moyer Testimony 9.29.15

VIDEO: Jim Moyer testifies on specialty crop research before House Agriculture Committee

Jim Moyer, associate dean of research for CAHNRS and director of the Agricultural Research Center at WSU, presented specialty crop research innovations in Washington, D.C. this fall.
Winter Wheat May 2014 by McFarland

‘A quiet crisis’: The rise of acidic soil in Washington

Gary Wegner first noticed the problem in 1991, when a field on his family’s farm west of Spokane produced one-fourth the usual amount of wheat. Lab tests revealed a surprising result: the soil had become acidic.

Study: Small railroads important but costly to upgrade

More than half of Washington’s short-line rail miles aren’t up to modern standards, according to a recent study by the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Washington State University Freight Policy Transportation Institute.
A grizzly bear with her cubs at the WSU bear center.

Single hair shows researchers what a bear has been eating

By looking at a single hair, U.S. and Canadian researchers can get a good idea of a grizzly bear’s diet over several months.


With 39 locations throughout the state, WSU Extension is the front door to the University. Extension builds the capacity of individual, organization, businesses and communities, empowering them to find solutions for local issues and to improve their quality of life. Extension collaborates with communities to create a culture of life-long learning and is recognized for its accessible, learner-centered, relevant, high-quality, unbiased educational programs.

MudflatImpact: Burrowing Shrimp and Invasive Eelgrass

Shellfish production in Washington is a $60 million a year industry. Several major pests plague this industry, resulting in major crop loss. One of the most important pests is subterranean burrowing shrimp. These shrimp bioturbate (stir up) the sediment, causing the oysters to sink and die. For the past 60 years the industry has been using the insecticide Sevin to control this pest, but due to lawsuits its use was phased out in 2012. Without alternative control for shrimp, tens of millions of dollars in annual crop revenue will be lost and the industry will quickly lose its economic viability in southwestern Washington.

PoultryFarmImpact: The National Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center

The Environmental Protection Agency has identified agriculture as the leading contributor of pollutants to the nation’s rivers, streams, lakes, and reservoirs. These reports often do not separate animal agriculture from other agricultural enterprises, but they do note that pathogens, nutrients, and oxygen-depleting substances associated with manure are three of the top five pollutants. Some emerging issues related to manure management include: endocrine disruptors (hormones), pharmaceuticals (antimicrobials), and antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Adopting farm practices that minimize the environmental impact is important for food safety.

BiosolidsImpact: Biosolids and Compost

Biosolids are the solids produced during municipal wastewater treatment. Composts are made from a variety of organic materials, including both urban and agriculture sources such as yard trimmings, biosolids, storm debris, food waste or manure, and food processing residues. While these materials have traditionally been viewed as waste, they can play a valuable role as soil amendments in urban and agricultural settings. They provide nutrients and organic matter and they sequester carbon, thereby conserving resources, restoring soils, and combating climate change.

Click to see the many ways
that WSU Extension benefits
your community and the state.

Alumni & Friends

What are you thankful for?

This holiday season, we know who we are thankful for—YOU!
Our family, friends, supporters, and alumni are so important to CAHNRS.
We have created a video that helps explain why.

You were an integral part in helping us complete the successful
Campaign for Washington State University: Because the World Needs Big Ideas.
Over 9,700 donors contributed more than $250 million to CAHNRS,
a quarter of the WSU Campaign goal of $1 billion.
Without you, we wouldn’t be where we are today. And for that, we thank you.

Your friends in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences

Contact Us

CAHNRS Alumni & Development
PO Box 646228
Pullman, WA 99164-6228
PH: 509-335-2243

Faculty & Staff

Important Dates and Deadlines

August 24, 2015

  • Tenure and Promotion Documents need to be submitted to the Dean’s Office

September 10, 2015

  • Fall Festival


A-Z Index of Faculty and Staff Resources:

  • Click letters to sort alphabetically
  • Click individual items to view or download

Contact Dean’s Office:
Hulbert 421
PO Box 646242
Pullman WA 99164-6242

Lisa Johnson:
Assistant to the Dean
Hulbert 421C
PO Box 646242
Pullman WA 99164-6242

How many varieties of wheat has WSU developed?



Sentence or two with more info about the subject.